The teaching concerns “we the living ones remaining unto the coming [parousía]2 of the Lord …” A number of commentators needlessly infer from this passage that the apostle and his colleagues were anticipating the imminent return of Christ and expected to be alive when he came.3 J. Denney candidly asks, “Is it not better to recognise the obvious fact that Paul was mistaken as to the nearness of the second advent than to torture his words to secure infallibility?” (Thessalonians 177). D. Coggan cites this text, along with 1 Cor. 7:29-31; 15:51, claiming, “It is clear that in the early days of his writing ministry, he viewed that advent as imminent…. Paul clearly was thinking in terms of many of his contemporaries, probably including himself, being present when the Lord came …” (Portrait of a Revolutionary 87, 236). However, Denney and Coggan (and others espousing this view) ignore the Pauline texts that qualify these statements and indicate otherwise. I. H. Marshall maintains that scholars who insist these passages must mean an expected imminent return “misinterpret” them (Thessalonians 127).
Before legitimate conclusions can be drawn, the broader scope of what is taught must be considered. Uncertainty about the timing of the Lord’s coming is acknowledged just a few verses later: “whether we may watch [be alive] or we may sleep [be dead], we may live together with him” (1 Thess. 5:10). Paul understood that he may or may not still be living when Christ comes (cf. 5:2-3; 1 Cor. 6:14; 15:51; 2 Cor. 4:14). While immanency was surely possible, it was never definitively affirmed. Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy are simply identifying with their readers, whether they are to be alive or dead at the Lord’s return.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Unless noted otherwise, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
2 The term parousía is descriptive of the Lord’s return mostly in the Thessalonian letters (1 Thess. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:1, 8), and just one other time in Paul (1 Cor. 15:23). Elsewhere in the Pauline writings other expressions used are epipháneia (“appearing,” “manifestation”) (2 Thess. 2:8; 1 Tim. 6:14; 2 Tim. 1:10; 4:1, 8; Tit. 2:13); and apokálupsis (“revelation”) (2 Thess. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:7).
3 See, e.g., G. Bornkamm, Paul 206-207; J. E. Frame, Thessalonians 172-73; A. J. Hultgren, “Pastoral Epistles,” in St Paul [ed. J. Dunn] 143; A. F. Segal, Paul the Convert 161-62.